How Culture Ties into the Divided Perspectives on Face Masks

While Americans are seemingly in love with DIY face masks, Western culture had only recently begun integrating this habit of wearing them. But for East Asians, this was already common and highly encouraged. I’ll be diving into why in previous years there was a cultural gap in the perception of wearing face masks.

So why were face masks already so prevalent in Eastern culture? It traces back to 1919 Japan during the Spanish flu pandemic, which resulted in an estimated 2 million deaths. The Japanese government issued social distancing and face covering (much like current day) to mitigate the spread. The Coronavirus is similar to what they’ve faced before, so they are not new to these rules. Since then, the Japanese adapted this habit as a sign of respect and courtesy for others. The trend also spread to China and Korea, where many became increasingly conscious of air pollution. Some have even turned them into a fashion accessory that served more of an aesthetic purpose. This was done in 1929 Shanghai, when the government promoted them as fashion accessories to encourage its use.

Interestingly, it’s also been mentioned in this article that traditional Asian philosophies believe the idealism of “Qi” or air as an essential part of maintaining health and the superstitions against wind weakening bodies, which may explain why there is such a heavily placed importance on wearing mask in East Asian culture.

Nowadays, East Asians are wearing them as a way to show others you are considerate of their wellbeing. Their understanding is that doing so tells others that “I’m safe to be around.”

However, for many Americans, wearing face masks meant the opposite. Historically, face masks were associated with people who were in proximity of the sick or in dire need. Thus, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus, some Americans were initially uncomfortable with the idea of face masks. Many were confused by the mixed messaging on whether you were supposed to wear them if you were healthy. To be seen doing so sometimes resulted in being shunned as the sick one even if you were only trying to protect yourself. In addition, the CDC and WHO gave valid reasons to discourage the public from wearing masks because of 1) the medical field that need it most and 2) the false sense of confidence that may arise from people depending on masks. The situation made it so that whether you wore it or not, it was a lose-lose. It created tension and confusion between those who were for and against using them.

Now that tension seems to be dissolving. With the CDC’s new recommendation of wearing face coverings, the attention has shifted towards sewing fabric masks at home to prioritize the supply of surgical masks for the healthcare industry. With more people coming together to create face masks at home, even forming a grassroots movement known as #MasksNOW National, attitudes towards mask wearing has taken a significant turn. There is great value now in wearing them publicly as you would be protecting others as well as yourself. Seeing as even Dr. Anthony Fauci’s bobblehead profits have been going towards buying masks for healthcare workers, there’s been many creative solutions that Americans are coming up with to fulfill the growing mask demand.

Despite the initial chaos surrounding face masks, this simple form of protection has united all kinds of people together to stay safe in this crisis. One example is Taiwan’s significant donation of 10 million masks to Western countries and other countries in need. Despite being affected themselves, they were generous enough to donate due to their high level management of their face mask supply.

“We need to step up cooperation, and that means sharing experiences and materials, and working together to develop treatments and vaccines.” said Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

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